“The BBC will only survive the 21st century by escaping the straitjacket of the licence fee” suggests the Telegraph.
The timing of Tony Hall’s planned departure as director-general of the BBC, six months from now, strongly suggests that the challenges facing the corporation and its funding model are reaching a critical point. In two years’ time, a “mid-term review” is due to take place of the last charter and licence fee settlement, negotiated in 2016. That was when the terms of the BBC Charter, and the licence fee as a mechanism, were entrenched until 2027.
Those terms were hailed at the time by the BBC as a victory, but the seeds of conflict had been sown. The first problem was the provision of free TV licences for the over-75s, funded by the Treasury since 2001. The deal saw an end date to free provision in 2020, unless the BBC chose to extend it.
During that time, under Hall, the BBC authorised the Capita
scandals, when in 2017, 1 in 3 people dragged to court for not paying BBC fee had cases thrown out, their cases quashed. Both the BBC and Capita had promised MPs licence fee collectors would not target the vulnerable after their ruthless tactics emerged.
Findings suggested that out of the 180,000 people taken to court each year for non-payment, the probe suggested 60,000 of them are taken to court without need. Failure to pay can lead to a £1,000 penalty and a criminal conviction and 38 people, mainly women, were jailed for not paying the fine.
More than 300 collectors employed by Capita were ordered to catch 28 evaders a week and bosses were able to pick up bonuses of up to £15,000 a year for licence fee sales obtained with threats of court action.
One manager is claimed to have said “We will drive you as hard as we can to get as much as we can out of you because we’re greedy”. Following the results of the probe into Capita’s conduct, BBC Director-General Lord Hall wrote to say it had “fallen short of the standards the BBC has a right to expect”. It didn’t occur to Hall to say the buck stopped with him!
The investigation led Capita to suspend two managers and they told MPs vulnerable people were no longer being targeted. Capita were criticised after finding more women than men were targeted for payments and said the BBC must ‘rapidly’ change its approach to licence fee collection to protect women.
Belatedly, the BBC has decided that most of the 3.4 million homes, of the over 70s and disabled, excused payment would start receiving threatening letters in June demanding £154.50, or face prosecution. Many of them will be added to the 7 per cent of households that currently evade payment (and of whom only about 10 per cent end up facing a magistrate). At the same time, pressure is growing in Parliament for such evasion to be decriminalised, effectively making payment of the licence fee voluntary and these vans/Crapita redundant.
Meanwhile, a huge change in media technology is eroding the BBC’s position as a content provider. When Hall was appointed seven years ago, Netflix barely had a foothold in the UK. Now, 10 million homes subscribe to it voluntarily, as do many more millions to Sky, Virgin Media, BT TV and Amazon. Soon, Disney and Apple, just two of over 70 such services in the US, will add to the competitive pressure.
Part of the problem is the Beeb’s apparent unwillingness to recognise its own bias and political mistakes. Hall, its director general, dismissed these concerns, claiming “that the fact the BBC receives complaints from both the left and the right must mean that it is doing nothing wrong”! How bizarre a claim is that? For Crapita and its exorbitant salaries to staff while people were pursued for the money to pay the BBC, no licence fee should be charged.